Defend Truth

2024 ELECTIONS

The big no-vote: over 11 million registered voters did not cast ballots in 2024 polls 

The big no-vote: over 11 million registered voters did not cast ballots in 2024 polls 
South Africans queued at the IEC voting station located in Craighall Primary School, Johannesburg. 29 May 2024. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

That so many people have not voted in what were regarded as watershed elections, needs great introspection. Experts have suggested policy discussions about automatic registration and dramatically encouraging young people to register in order to reverse the decline.

The voter turnout has declined from 89.3% in 1999 to an all-time low of 58.6% in the 2024 general elections. Of a registered voter population of 27.7 million people, only 16.2 million cast their ballots last Wednesday.

That so many people did not vote in what were regarded as watershed elections, needs great introspection.

Read in Daily Maverick: IEC declares SA’s watershed May 29 polls ‘free and fair’ as no outright winner emerges

What’s going on?

According to Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, associate professor of political science at Stellenbosch University, when discussing the low voter turnout, it’s important to also talk about voter turnout as a proportion of the voting age population, which is “a far more accurate measure of turnout”.

“So we have two measures of turnout — one of the eligible population and one of the registered population. What I’ve been pointing to for a very long time is that the gap between the eligible voters and the number of registered voters has been growing. That gap continues to grow at every election and our turnout of eligible voters (what we call the voting-age population) has dropped from about 86% in 1994, to 41% in 2024. So basically, four in 10 eligible voters cast a vote last week and that continues to decline,” she said.

SA voters

The queue outside of the Assemblies of God Livingstone station in Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town. 29 May 2024. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Schulz-Herzenberg explained that the country has a voting age population of about 39.7 million, of which 27.7 million people are registered voters. “We have a gap of about 11 million voters who are not registered, in the last election this gap was about 9 million, and, in 2014, it was about 7 million,” she said.

“So the gap between our registered voter population and our actual eligible population is widening at each election,” said Schulz-Herzenberg.

She said this gap is largely being driven by very low registration rates among young people.

The province with the highest voter turnout in the 2024 elections was KwaZulu-Natal (62.3%), followed by Gauteng (61.9%) and the Northern Cape (61.5%).

The province with the lowest voter turnout was the North West (51.4%).

Gauteng experienced the biggest drop in turnout between 2019 and 2024, declining 9.9%, from 71.8% in 2019 to 61.9% in 2024. The province had the most registered voters, but as Daily Maverick’s Ferial Haffajee wrote, the majority of them stayed at home in what was regarded as a protest.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Election Alignment: ANC-EFF coalition pact for Gauteng government is a given

Possible reasons for the low turnout

Six months before the polls in December 2023, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) conducted its voter participation survey, which HSRC executive director, Narnia Bohler-Muller, says gives us some insight into why voters did not want to cast their vote.

“We’ve said quite often through our research that satisfaction with democracy has declined substantially in South Africa. Obviously, the vote is one of the ways in which you express your satisfaction with democracy… And it’s possible that those who are dissatisfied with the way democracy’s working in South Africa would not want to go vote,” Bohler-Muller told Daily Maverick.

According to the HSRC survey, in 2023, 57% of South Africans were dissatisfied with democracy.

The HSRC found that political discontent and disillusionment “emerged as the main reason for electoral abstention,” consistent with past voter participation research. When asked what their main reason would be for not voting if the national elections were held tomorrow, 81% of people had responded, “disillusionment”.

Bohler-Muller said the HSRC findings showed there was a strong sentiment around people’s right to vote and the belief that it is a civic duty to vote, but there was a despondency around whether one’s vote actually mattered.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections Dashboard

“I think that’s very relevant [when looking at the voter turnout]. You have the right to not vote or to abstain. I do think it was a form of protest and disillusionment, as well as the fact that people felt political parties weren’t speaking to them in a way that would encourage them to go out and vote,” she said.

“Voting is probably the dominant way in which people express their democratic will, but it’s not the only way, so we have to see this in context. Other forms of democracy are where citizens participate in democratic decision-making — even if they haven’t voted, they still participate in democratic decision-making. Voting is only one aspect of democracy. But the decline is worrying because it’s not only a decline in trusting the fact that your vote makes a difference, but a decline in trust in democracy generally,” she added.

Should we be concerned about this trend?

According to Schulz-Herzenberg, there are a number of reasons why we should be concerned about, what she refers to as “a disconnect between people and the polls” reflected in the voter turnout statistics.

“It’s about democracy; it’s about the quality of the mandate we are passing over to our government. As that mandate shrinks, in other words, as less and less eligible citizens cast a vote and lodge their preferences and their interests, the quality of the mandate that we hand over to representatives in Parliament and the executive, hollows out.

“A mandate that comes from 60% of the eligible electorate is a lot stronger — and one could argue has more legitimacy — than a mandate that is coming from 40%, which is where we are now,” she said.

However, Bohler-Muller believes we shouldn’t be panicking about the decline “but we should certainly be noting this trend; it’s not a healthy trend”.

At the same time, Bohler-Muller argues, voter turnout internationally is low. “South Africa’s not necessarily an exception. Internationally, the trend is — for whatever reason — the voter turnout is low. Countries are concerned about it, but it’s not seen as a collapse of the system or anything,” she said.

Voters in at least 64 countries worldwide will cast their ballots in 2024. Several nations which have already held elections this year have seen a decline in voter turnout since their previous elections. Belarus, for example, declined from 77.3% in 2019, to 73.1% in 2024. Iran declined from 42.3% in 2020, to 40.6% in 2024. And Taiwan declined from 74.9% in 2020, to 71.8% in 2024.

Adding to this issue, Schulz-Herzenberg says, “Democracies do function with fairly low turnout rates around the world, but often that is based on complacency. People are relatively satisfied and don’t feel the need to go to the polls. I don’t think that summarises the South African public view at all.”

“I think we are perhaps suffering from a crisis of representation which we see in a lot of democracies. Voters simply struggle to find a credible home on the political landscape which they feel represents their interests and represents them. We are suffering from a massive trust deficit when it comes to politicians and political parties, and therefore our low turnout levels are not a function of complacency or satisfaction — they are a function of a disconnect in representation and accountability,” she said.

The issue of mistrust in institutions is reflected in the HSRC’s survey, which shows that, in 2022, public confidence or trust in national government stood at 23%, while trust in political parties stood at 17%.

“The general public are feeling distrustful and despondent, and that could be a reason why the voter turnout is low,” said Bohler-Muller. “The Electoral Commission is more trusted than government and political parties, but that has also fallen.” Trust in the IEC, according to the survey, stood at 40%.

What needs to happen to reverse the decline?

According to Schulz-Herzenberg, there are two potential remedies to this declining trend. First, she says there ought to be a conversation among policymakers about “removing the obstacle of registration”.

“I really think there’s merit in having a policy discussion about automatic registration, which essentially would just force everyone on the voters’ roll, because there is an increasingly large number of people in society who are not on the voters roll and many of those people are young people,” she said. She added that there are “millions of young people who are eligible to vote, but have fallen through the cracks and are not registered”.

Schulz-Herzenberg explained that there are about 11 million young eligible voters aged between 18 and 29 which constitute about 28% of the entire voting age population. But only about 45% are registered, she said.

Ahead of the 2024 elections, the IEC announced that total registered voters stood at 27.7 million people, compared to 2019 when the country had 26.7 million registered.

“Let’s put this into context, we have roughly one million more registered voters than we had five years ago, and yet the eligible voting population has shot up to 40 million from 35 million. So registration is not keeping up with population growth,” said Schulz-Herzenberg.

Second, Schulz-Herzenberg says the political elite needs to rethink strategies to reach “a massive constituency of young voters” because they are the voters of the future.

“The onus is on political parties to shift the discourse and become more relevant, more trustworthy and think really carefully about how they’re portraying themselves to a young, almost postmodern audience that doesn’t fall for the shenanigans that go on in our political landscape. DM

Gallery

Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.